Extraditing Drug Lord Walid Makled: Why Bogotá Snubbed Washington

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Is it another sign of Washington’s withering clout in Latin America? Or does it indicate the rule of law’s rising stature in the region? Or will it just let Venezuelan officials who are allegedly in the pockets of drug lords off the hook? When it comes to Colombia’s final decision to extradite alleged narco-kingpin Walid Makled to Venezuela instead of to the U.S., which Bogotá announced on Wednesday, April 13, it may be a combination of all three – and a jolting reminder of just how much things have changed for America in the Americas.

Makled, a Venezuelan, was one of the western hemisphere’s most notorious drug traffickers when he was arrested last summer in Colombia. But although he was collared on a U.S. warrant – he’s wanted for allegedly shipping as many as 10 tons of cocaine each month from Venezuela to America – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he was obligated by law to extradite Makled to Venezuela. His reasons: first, the U.S. and Colombia currently don’t have an extradition treaty; Venezuela had actually requested Makled’s extradition before the U.S.; and Makled is wanted in Venezuela for more serious crimes, including murder, in addition to trafficking.

Nevertheless, the Obama Administration and congressional leaders like Senator Richard Lugar insisted justice would be better served by handing Makled to the U.S. The drug lord had made it clear he was willing to squeal on all the Venezuelan political and military bosses he boasts having paid to help him move his product – including 40 army generals and a navy commander, he told Univision in a jailhouse interview this month. The government of Venezuela’s socialist President, Hugo Chávez, calls Makled’s accusations a lie, which is why the Americans argue that delivering him to Venezuela means his explosive claims may well get swept under the rug – and why, they suggest, Caracas made sure it got ahead of Washington in the extradition line.

Venezuela denies that charge and insists that despite U.S. criticism, it’s doing its part in the drug war. Last month, for example, it deported six violent, high-profile trafficking suspects to their home countries. But the more worrisome issue for the U.S. is the unabashed willingness of Colombia – Washington’s closest ally in South America and a country that received some $5 billion in U.S. anti-drug aid over the past decade – to thumb its nose at an American extradition request in favor of an anti-yanqui antagonist like Chávez. Lugar called it “a reversal of years of cooperation.”

But for Santos it meant helping to reverse years of hostility between Colombia and Venezuela, which ranks higher on his agenda right now than pleasing the U.S. Some speculate it may also be intended to signal his exasperation with Washington’s failure so far to ratify a free-trade agreement with Colombia. Either way, what it  does signal is Washington’s shrinking hemispheric hegemony, as well as Latin America’s growing political and economic independence from the U.S. (not to mention Santos’ independence from his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who has been angrily critical of the decision to hand Makled to Chávez).

What Santos and Colombia might be trying to convey above all is that they’re walking the rule-of-law talk that Latin America has been hearing from the U.S. for decades. Maybe the drug war would have been better served by extraditing the kingpin to the U.S., but Santos’ point was that it would have disregarded Colombia law, which mandated the extradition to Venezuela. That principle works both ways of course. On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department reminded Venezuela that it “now has its own responsibility” to deal with Makled in a way that satisfies the rule of law – which means dealing with the Venezuelan generals and politicos he fingers.